The onslaught against whales in South African waters began in the 18th century with the arrival of the first British and American whalers. The Cape colonists commenced whaling in 1792, all whalers now targeting the Southern Right Whale, named as such because they lived in the southern hemisphere, swam slowly and floated when killed!
By 1830 the population of Southern Right Whales had been reduced dramatically and Humpback Whales now become the whalers’ preferred target. The first Norwegian whaling ship arrived in Plettenberg Bay in 1912, precipitating a major collapse in the Humpback Whale population. Larger, better equipped factory ships enabled whalers to extend their range to Antarctica, with Blue, Fin and Sperm Whales now dominating the catch. Tentative steps were taken to afford some protection to whales with the formation of The International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1946. The IWC had limited success initially and the slaughter continued unchecked – Fin, Sei, Sperm and Minke Whales taking the most punishment.
By 1973 South African whale populations had reached such low levels that whaling was no longer economical and a total ban on whaling in our waters was declared by the South African government. The larger whale species had been hunted to near extinction and conservation efforts have resulted in encouraging rises in the populations of Southern Right and Humpback whales, whilst the status of most other species remains uncertain. Whales are by no means out of the woods yet, with certain countries refusing to end whaling and commercial fishing practices coupled with pollution posing unknown threats to both whales and dolphins.
With the growing global awareness of the beauty, majesty and ecology of whales, whale watching is evolving into a major tourist activity. South Africa is blessed with over 2000km’s of whale watching coastline – stretching from the Cape West Coast to northern KwaZulu-Natal. Over 30 species of whales and dolphins can be found in South African waters. The Cape Whale Route stretches from Doringbaai to Storms River Mouth.
Knysna is one of the favoured destinations on the Cape Whale Route. Bamboo, the Guest House, just a few minutes from the Knysna Heads, is a perfect base for visiting whale watchers. Generally four whale species are encountered in the waters around Knysna:
- Bryde’s Whale – these swift omnivores generally occur in small family groups of 5-6 and some populations are resident off our coast all year round.
- Southern Right Whale – these filter feeders are migratory, overwintering in the shallow waters off our coast. Sheltering in inshore bays and coves, these whales calve, nurse their young and mate from June to December each year. Numbers are estimated at only between 3000 and 4000 with South African waters being their preferred overwintering grounds.
- Humpback Whale – over 100 000 Humpback Whales were slaughtered by whalers, but slowly their numbers are once again increasing. These whales may be seen in our coastal waters from May to November as they head for their feeding and breeding grounds off the Angolan and Mozambican coasts.
- Killer Whale or Orca – these supreme predators are occasionally sighted off our coastline.
Top land based whale watching spots in and around Knysna include the Knysna Heads, Brenton-on-Sea, Noetzie and the Goukamma Nature Reserve. Bamboo visitors may also opt for an ocean cruise for spectacular encounters with whales.